Antimatter at CERN

The first atoms of antihydrogen – the antimatter counterpart of the simplest atom, hydrogen – were created at CERN in 1995. An atom of antihydrogen consists of an antiproton and a positron (an antielectron), which makes it the simplest antiatom. Unfortunately, this does not make it any easier to produce in the lab. It was a difficult task both for the physicists and for the operation team at CERN’s Low Energy Antiproton Ring (LEAR) – where the discovery of antihydrogen took place. The researchers allowed antiprotons circulating inside LEAR to collide with atoms of a heavy element. Any antiprotons passing close enough to heavy atomic nuclei could create an electron-positron pair; in a tiny fraction of cases, the antiproton would bind with the positron to make an atom of antihydrogen.

However, the fleeting existence of the antiatoms meant that they could not be used for further studies. Each one existed for only about 40 billionths of a second, travelling at nearly the speed of light over a path of 10 metres before it annihilated with ordinary matter. In 2011, ALPHA – an international collaboration currently running experiments at CERN's Antiproton Decelerator facility – succeeded in trapping antihydrogen atoms for 1000 seconds. By precise comparisons of hydrogen and antihydrogen, several experimental groups hope to study the properties of antihydrogen and see if it has the same spectral lines as hydrogen. One group, AEGIS, will even attempt to measure g, the gravitational acceleration constant, as experienced by antihydrogen atoms.

The ACE experiment is testing the use of antiprotons for cancer therapy. From 2016, a facility called ELENA will enable all experiments working at the Antiproton Decelerator to get lower energy and more abundant antiproton beams, making it even easier to produce antihydrogen in large quantities.

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